You Can't Choose Your Relatives
There is a truism that says you get to choose your friends, but you don’t get to choose your relatives. This is heard by many of us for the first time while being admonished by our parents about the kids we chose to hang around with. Later in life, it is used to assure others that the behavior of a crazy uncle or cousin who lives in someone’s attic is not hereditary and has no bearing on our own disposition – present or future. Sometimes, though, you discover that there is a relative previously unknown that you are quite happy to learn that you share bloodlines with. It recently happened to me.
From a purely secular viewpoint, I might like to report that said long-lost relation was a multimillionaire who had written me into his or her will, and that the executor of the estate had just put me on notice of a need to travel to Timbuktu to claim my sizeable inheritance. That is not the case (although come to think of it, I did get an e-mail like that). However, as one who has had a lifelong interest in physics, I was utterly thrilled to learn that my great-great-great-great grandfather was the brother of Johann Gottlieb Friedrich von Bohnenberger – the German physicist who discovered the gyroscope (Gyroskop, in Deutsch) effect! He also is credited for an invention called the single gold-leaf electroscope. Greatness is in my blood, it would seem ;-)
Great-Great-Great-Great grandpa Bohnenberger was born on 5 June, 1765, in Simmozheim (Württemberg), Germany. He passed away on April 19, 1831, in Tübingen. Were it not for the family tree provided by the genealogist who sent me the documentation, it would be nearly impossible to determine the lines of descent since there is almost nothing on the Internet. How, you might ask, did we go from von Bohnenberger to Blattenberger? The simple answer is that like with many immigrants who came to America in the mid nineteenth century, part of the original spelling - and usually the pronunciation of - the surname was changed to fit in with the "locals" so as to not appear like a total outsider. In those days, unless a family could move into an area already populated by other immigrants of similar backgrounds, severe discrimination could be a real impediment to success in the New World. I might mention that my ancestors came to America through Ellis Island in New York, and did so legally, and they learned to speak English.
The longer answer takes a bit more work. The "Bohnen" part of Bohnenberger is the German word for "beans," and "berg" means "mountain." Adding "er" to the end of the word signifies "more of." So, strung together in the manner of those familiar really long German words, it translates to some like "uber bean farmers of the mountains." Now, the von Blattenhügels were makers of linens and other white goods. It should come as no surprise that "blatt" means "sheet" in German. "Hügel" means "hills." Our two families originated in the same area just outside Württemberg, a particularly rolling part of southern Germany, so the construction of the names is apt. Greta von Blattenhügels met Johann (John) Bohnenberger at the University of Tuebingen, where he was a professor of physics. She was the first matriculating female student ever permitted to study there. Boy met girl, boy fell in love with girl, boy married girl, and the rest, as they say, is history.
But that still does not fully explain the evolution from von Bohnenberger to Blattenberger. As it turns out, Great-Great-Great-Great grandma Greta was a bit of a pusher of the limits of social norms for the day. When their first child, Werner, was born, she insisted that his last name reflect a combination of their two surnames, and hence the formation of von Blattenberger. Notice that somehow her surname managed to appear first in the contraction; she must have really had 'ol Johann whipped! Finally, upon arriving in America, the "von" was dropped, and today we have Blattenberger. There are a few variations on Blattenberger prevalent in the New York and Pennsylvania area today, including most notably, Plattenberger.
I guess it is not so unbelievable if you consider that a few days ago news came out that Brad Pitt is distantly related to Barak Obama, and that Angelina Jolie is distantly (my guess is very distantly) related to Hillary Clinton.
The first modern gyroscope was designed in the early 1800s by Johann Gottlieb Friedrich von Bohnenberger, while a professor at the University of Tuebingen, Germany. It was made with a heavy ball instead of a wheel, but since it had no scientific application, it faded into history. To the left is a photo of Bohnenberger's apparatus at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, and probably dates from the early part of the twentieth century.
Johann also did a little research into electrical charges, and created a device called the single gold-leaf electroscope. An electroscope is an instrument used to detect the presence of a charge in the vicinity.
Since Johann's time, there has not been a notable member of the Blattenberger clan who has achieved similar notoriety for scientific endeavors. Four generations of descendants have been skipped over. I can only hope that by the time my efforts at RF Cafe are complete, that somehow I will have attained Great-Great-Great-Great grandpa Bohnenberger's level of contribution to the world of science and engineering, and the genealogical trend will be kick-started again.
If you are interested, you can click on the family tree to the left to see the detailed lineage from Johann and Greta von Bohnenberger to Kirt Blattenberger.
Posted April 1, 2009